I am at a loss for words powerful enough to speak to the horror of the violence and loss of life in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend. But it was not just this weekend, and it was not just the violence, that was chilling.
To me, the worst moment wasn’t the thrown bodies and flying shoes from a car plowing through a crowd, horrid as it was. Images of Friday’s torch-lit rally were even more disturbing to me. I believe that most Americans view Nazi flags and marchers with fire in their hands and hoods on their heads with revulsion, sorrow, and anger. But for people of color, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and others, these images bring a special pain and justifiable fear for themselves and their families. Terrorism is intended to terrorize. For that pain, I am so sorry.
I also am sorry that I wasn’t searching for words for so many earlier acts of intimidation. For many months, white supremacists, Nazis, and radicals have zeroed in on Charlottesville with a concerted campaign of intimidation and terror, causing great harm to those they aim to frighten. Their activism is a more visible expression of the racism and hatred that has marked our country since before its founding, has been reignited and allowed to flourish in today’s divisive political climate, and leaves its mark not only in psyches but in shrunken opportunities and barriers to a better life.
I realize that offers of support and solidarity won’t keep people safe or help them heal. Individually and together, we must find ways to stand with Charlottesville and with those in our own communities for whom these experiences are excruciating and terrifying. But we also need to find ways to help make the hatred stop.
At the Urban Institute, we can do more to use the tools at our disposal—our research knowledge and our history in addressing instability, volatility, uncertainty, and fear across lines of income, class, place, and race—and offer insight to help inform solutions.
We should do more to shed light on what empowers hatred, the structures that perpetuate division, and the consequences of fear and intimidation. Witnessing and experiencing violence is traumatic, and we know that trauma can have lasting effects on health and well-being.
Indeed, we must continue to examine and point out where the legacy and fact of racism still exists. Our cities and schools are still segregated. Indifference and damaging policies have contributed to lagging wealth among minority families. Communities of color are still greatly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. And whites often do not recognize the privilege our society still provides to us. In short, we need to name racism and examine where the legacy and fact of racism stills exists, even in our own lives and work.
But there is something more I wish to understand. I am struck that marchers in Charlottesville chanted “you [or sometimes Jews] will not replace us” and spoke of their “heritage” or “culture” being destroyed. The idea of replacement is powerful in far-right, European, anti-immigrant movements, too. I believe that inclusion, which should allow for the preservation of the nonviolent, nonthreatening parts of everyone’s culture and heritage, is at the heart of the American experiment. But we have always struggled with the fear of replacement. And it resonates with many who would never condone the hatred exhibited in Charlottesville.
Maybe I should not seek to explicate the simply intolerable. I applaud those who shine a bright light on and combat directly those with invidious beliefs. But leading a community of analysts who seek to bring forth knowledge to improve lives, I imagine we have something to contribute, to understand the origins of fear and what drives hatred of the other, even as we seek to protect and create opportunity for its victims. We can ask why do people experience change and disruption as coming at the hand of the other, and what can we do to create and demonstrate the mutual benefit of an inclusive society. Without this inquiry, how else can we tear out hatred, root and branch?
The Urban Institute’s mission is to offer insights from evidence to find answers to the great challenges. Today I offer no evidence—only my own reflections. What happened in Charlottesville has motivated us to come together and be clear that, even as independent finders of fact, we won’t stand for hatred. But I think we can do more both to confront racism in all the forms that still bedevil us and explore the origins of that hatred.